First Responders and Coping Mechanisms

Published on June 5, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

For many, the stresses of daily life lead us to act in ways we might otherwise decide were reckless or irrational. These stressors in our lives might then be redirected towards loved ones, work relationships, and others who have no way of sharing in the unique stress we have freshly experienced.

First responders experience amplified doses of workplace stressors, oftentimes occurring through traumatic experiences. These heightened feelings of stress, anxiety, and trauma increase one’s desire to cope by any means necessary, despite how destructive or unhealthy the coping mechanism might be.

Due to the unique situations faced by first responders on a daily basis, not everyone can relate to—or identify with—the deep-seated emotions that tend to take hold of a first responder’s mental health when they are off the clock. This leads to feelings of alienation from the usual support systems of friends and family, who may not be equipped to deal with unpacking the complex stressors at the center of all these feelings. Isolation from support systems can lead to a search for acceptance.

Rest assured, there are healthy ways to cope. Yet for every healthy coping mechanism, there are unhealthy options that bully their way into our internal conversations. Here, we will examine the options first responders frequently turn to in attempts to manage high levels of stress and anxiety, along with their risks and benefits.

Substance Use

Alcohol and/or narcotics can suppress the high-intensity stresses experienced by first responders. For this reason, many in the field opt to self-medicate without fully working through the stress and trauma at the root of those anxious feelings. As far as mental health is concerned, alcohol and/or substance use does not lead to the end of stress, but rather, the prolonging of it, especially in conjunction with isolation. As far as coping mechanisms are concerned, substances prove to be one of the most difficult to recover from.

For first responders who may find themselves in the midst of an addictive cycle fueled by substance and/or alcohol use, remind yourself it is never too late to commit to recovery. Healthy coping mechanisms are out there. The first step is empowering yourself to admit you are worth recovering.

Gambling Addiction

As a result of increased exposure to fight-flight-or-freeze situations, first responders experience hyperactive sensitivity to what might otherwise be ordinary situations. The mind and body work together to normalize the high rate of scenarios where survival instincts kick in. This can cause us to express the same physical response to spilling a glass as we might experience as arriving on the scene of a car crash.

According to a study published in PubMed Central (PMC), first responders have a higher likelihood of developing addictions than those in less-stressful professions. However, these addictions do not necessarily have to involve alcohol and/or substance use.

Although gambling may seem harmless for short periods of time, the risk for first responders runs high. The appeal of gambling for individuals with high levels of stress can start as a way to stimulate the adrenaline rush experienced during the fight-flight-or-freeze response.

The thrill tends to start with small bets, then gradually increasing the stakes. Anyone addicted to gambling can and should talk to a qualified professional, as the condition—much like alcohol and/or substance use—effectively re-routes neurotransmitters within the brain of the addicted individual.

Compulsive Sexual Gratification

Much like gambling addiction, the heightened intensity of sexual situations can act as an effective stress release for any person, particularly those with high levels of anxiety. First responders fall into this category, and while sexual gratification can contribute to anyone’s health in a number of ways, compulsive gratification can lead to long term health risks. Compulsive sexual gratification may inhibit one’s ability to maintain long-lasting relationships with partners, friends, and even family.

While it is possible to balance a healthy relationship with sexual gratification—and this differs considerably person-to-person—it is important to know the risks of pursuing that gratification. It can be difficult to develop effective support systems.

Many people experience challenges remaining in stable relationships, maintaining financial stability, and coping with increased mood swings. Remember that it is completely normal to experience and indulge in sexual activity, but monitoring the importance placed on it is essential to remain connected to your happiness.

Speaking With a Qualified Resource

One of the most helpful outlets for first responders in recovery occurs in the form of qualified counsel. The best way to work through feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression is to share these feelings with someone who is equipped to help you process their complexities.

Some of the people we feel closest to may not know how to assist us when experiencing the side-effects of traumatic work situations. Sponsors, counselors, and help-lines all are there for us. Remember the stress you experience is natural, and talking about it is the healthiest way to manage our happiness for ourselves, and others.

First responders face unique obstacles along their path to recovery. It is common for first responders to develop multiple coping mechanisms, leading to co-existing medical conditions. In situations where chemical dependency problems are coupled with diagnosable co-occurring disorders, both need to be addressed for appropriate patient care. Post-traumatic stress disorder, panic/anxiety disorders, bipolar and depressive disorders are just a few of the disorders that can be assessed for and treated in conjunction with a psychiatrist and extensive clinical team. If you or your loved ones are ready to begin living alcohol and substance-free lives, please call our admissions staff at (866) 399-6528.